Lighter winds expected to give Ariz. firefighters a break

Lighter winds should give firefighters in southern Arizona a break Monday after a weekend in which thousands of residents fled their homes as powerful winds pushed the flames across roads and containment lines and toward populated areas.

High winds posed a tough challenge to firefighters battling the wildfires on Sunday in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where powerful gusts helped the blazes spread quickly.

The Monument fire just south of the city of Sierra Vista, Ariz., was one of several chewing through dry brush and timber where fire crews have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.

About 3,000 people from 1,700 homes were evacuated Sunday as the blaze — burning for a week — picked up speed with winds gusted up to 60 mph, Cochise County sheriff's spokeswoman Carol Capas said late Sunday night.

"Winds pushed fire across Highway 92, making (it) run so fast and so hot that the danger to citizens in the path was significant," she told The Associated Press.

The flames raced down a mountain and into a heavily populated area, forcing crews to abandon their lines and set up in new spots.

"The fire crews are doing an amazing job, trying to get in front of it," she said.

By Monday, those evacuated the day before still had not heard if their properties were destroyed or damaged.

12,000 evacuated
Sunday's evacuations brought the total number to about 12,000 people from 4,300 homes forced to flee flames of the Monument fire, officials said.

Some residences were destroyed Sunday, adding to the 44 already reported, but fire officials still don't have an exact number, Capas said. Among the destroyed structures was a popular Mexican restaurant. There have been no serious injuries.

She said evacuees have been staying with friends and relatives, at three evacuation shelters, and at local inns.

"This is horrible. This is a nightmare," Debbie Schmidlin told the Arizona Daily Star. She said she was evacuated twice in the past week from homes east and west of Highway 92.

"If this fire gets there, I'm leaving Arizona," she said as she watched from behind police lines two miles north of her home.